(MCT) — As trash-talkers grumbled Monday about Northern Illinois University being selected to play in the Orange Bowl, alumni and fans in the Chicago area had one thing to say:
"Everybody's entitled to their opinion," said Joseph Matty, executive director and CEO of the Northern Illinois University Alumni Association. "Our football team did what we needed to do. We played by the rules and we won games."
Less than 24 hours after the historic news that NIU would become the first team from the Mid-American Conference to earn a berth in one of college football's most prestigious bowl games, Huskie Pride was on full display.
By midday, a steady line had formed at NIU's Convocation Center, where students could sign up for free Orange Bowl tickets issued by the college.
The Northern Star, the campus newspaper, devoted its entire front page to the story with the exuberant headline: "How Do You Like Them Oranges?"
On Facebook, NIU graduates congratulated the team and each other. Several alumni association travel packages — from $769 to $2,049 — are being offered to Miami on New Year's Day, where the Huskies will face the Florida State Seminoles.
"It's really exciting my senior year seeing all this happen, to see this frenzy is awesome," said Jason Conklin, a senior marketing major from Round Lake Beach. "Hopefully this exposure will get more people to our games and get more national attention."
With 165,000 alumni in the Chicago area and another 60,000 living elsewhere in the country, NIU has demonstrated impressive school spirit at five smaller bowl games since 2005, and officials are expecting even bigger crowds Jan. 1, Matty said.
The alumni group expects to sell 1,000 tickets to a pregame reception in Miami and will dispatch staff to eight other cities across the U.S. for additional game "watch parties."
Matty added that the athletic success has been a boon for more than just sports fans at NIU. Five bowl appearances in the past seven years have led to an influx of support that allowed for the construction of two new facilities: the Yordon Center and the Chessick Practice Center.
"What it does is it reaffirms everybody's belief that they received a quality education," Matty said. "This is just an opportunity to show the excellence at NIU."
NIU's invitation to the Orange Bowl came as a surprise to some critics, who questioned how the BCS Bowl selection process allowed a lesser-known school to beat out more prestigious teams.
ESPN commentators blasted the selection minutes after it was announced Sunday evening, and sports radio continued the debate Monday.
The naysayers only made Glen Brin, of Long Grove, feel even prouder as he drove to work with an NIU flag hanging out his car window. Passing drivers honked their horns in support, he said.
Brin, who met his wife, Darlene, at NIU before graduating in 1979, follows NIU football religiously on TV, radio and, at least once a year, in person. He and his wife have a framed photograph of a historic building on campus hanging in the family room. They carry NIU credit cards in their wallets.
"There's no way I'm missing this," Brin said of the Orange Bowl. "To be in the stands in one of the five major bowls, with the first MAC team in the history of the conference, is just tremendous."
An official pep rally is scheduled for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Convocation Center.
Bruce Jones, a former NIU swimmer, remembered attending football games in the late 1980s, when the Huskies had losing records and the stadium was half-empty. Back then, he would cringe when the Huskies competed against bigger schools such as the University of Wisconsin or University of Iowa and suffered crushing defeats.
"It was just demoralizing. Administrators said it's part of the way of attracting more attention … and we were like, this is never going to work, we're just getting crushed," Jones said.
So although Jones was vacationing in Hawaii when NIU's Orange Bowl invitation was announced, it didn't stop him from sending gloating Facebook messages and making plans for another getaway in a few weeks, this time to Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens.
"It's kind of like vindication," Jones said.
Even NIU mascot Victor E. Huskie appeared proud as he accompanied Larry Gautier, a member of the Miami-based Orange Bowl Football Committee, around campus Monday.
"(NIU's appearance) is great, and at the end of the day Northern Illinois did what they had to do and they earned it," Gautier said.
Wearing an Orange Bowl blazer, Gautier was there to drum up interest in the game. But he didn't have to walk far before exchanging high-fives with Morgan Stockdale, a junior physical education major from Chicago who said she was Orange Bowl-bound.
Stockdale wore a hat and sweatshirt she acquired at Friday's Mid-American Conference championship game in Detroit.
"It's a big boost," she said. "It's going to get us (NIU) out there, and more people will want to come out for everything."